Dictated by land
Author(s): Richard Mahapatra, down to earth
Date: Nov 30, 2012

It was a season of sons-in-law in Haryana. In October, the
Congress-ruled state government scrambled to clean its records in the
face of alleged undue favours to Robert Vadra, son-in-law of the party
president Sonia Gandhi. That month, khap panchayats, or the
traditional caste panchayats notorious for their diktats in the name
of honouring social customs, also grabbed headlines. They wanted to
regulate the selection of sons-in-law as per their archaic beliefs. On
October 29, leaders of 29 khaps met in Rohtak and demanded banning
same-gotra, same-village marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act.

These seemingly unrelated developments have common roots—land. That
Haryana’s land has turned rare earth is no news. But its repercussion
on society is what the world is discovering now. Vadra, though not a
resident son-in-law, reportedly made windfall gains from land deals in
the state. Analysts say khaps now do not want their resident
sons-in-law to take away the newfound gold. Their obvious targets are
daughters and laws that allow them legal share in ancestral property.

Khaps largely exercise their authority over the Jat community of big
landholders around Delhi, including some districts of Haryana, Uttar
Pradesh and Rajasthan. Traditionally, in these areas marriage is not
allowed within the gotra, which loosely means a sub-caste or clan. But
khaps extend this prohibition to all inhabitants of a village and its
adjacent villages, including individuals from different gotras.
According to khaps, they are deemed siblings due to proximity of
residence and are bound by bhaichara or brotherhood. Strangely, their
diktats apply only to women.

They do not oppose men marrying in same gotras or other castes.
Perhaps they cannot afford to do it. In Haryana’s six
districts—Jhajjar, Rohtak, Jind, Panipat, Gurgaon and Sonipat—where
khaps are active, sex ratio is the lowest in the country: there are
850-870 females per 1,000 males. Such is the scarcity of eligible
brides in the state that men now “buy” brides from faraway Odisha,
Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Nepal. According to sociologist Ravinder
Kaur, 37 per cent of eligible men remain bachelor in the state.

Analysts say such woman-centric codes on marriage are to control the
family’s ownership over land (see ‘Khap panchayat’s codes…’). Khap
members have an instilled fear that in case of marriage by choice, the
girl or her husband would stake claim in ancestral property. By
declaring girls and boys of the same village and adjacent villages as
siblings, they lessen the possibility of young individuals getting
into matrimonial alliance. Experience shows, in an arranged marriage,
girls do not demand share in parental property. Moreover, if a girl is
married several villages away, the possibility of her exercising
inheritance rights becomes remote. They also oppose marriage between
majority and minority gotras as the majority gotra administers a
village and owns most of the land.

Khap panchayat’s codes on marriage

Not in same gotra: By banning same gotra marriage in a village, khaps
ensure that married women do not exercise their inheritance rights on
parental property
Not in bhaichara: Khaps then extend the diktat to several adjacent
villages by declaring boys and girls from those villages siblings and
ruling out marriage alliance among them
Not between majority and minority gotras: By not allowing girls from
majority gotra to marry into a minority gotra, the diktat protects
land of majority gotras who own maximum land in a village.

According to a study by the International Institute for Population
Sciences, Mumbai, the status of women in the family is worsening with
changing economic structure, reforms and mode of production. This is
more so in the National Capital Region (NCR) where the impact of
economic reforms was first felt. Explains Perianayagam Arokiasamy, who
did the study, “Usually larger landholdings are associated with less
autonomy for women.”

Women rights activist Jagmati Sangwan says khaps create false
impression that they are opposed to same-gotra marriage because it is
incestuous. They actually oppose the woman’s right to choose a life
partner. A study commissioned by the National Commission of Women
found that 72 per cent of the khap-dictated honour killings were
related to inter-caste marriages, while those related to same-gotra
marriages were only three per cent. “As couples are selectively
targeted, it is clear that the real motive of khap panchayats is to
control women’s sexuality to ensure that property remains within the
patriarchal caste domain,” Sangwan adds.

Small wonder khaps have lately been vocal about the two pieces of
legislation that allow a woman to marry as per her choice and secure
her rights over ancestral property: the Hindu Marriage Act and the
Hindu Succession Act. The marriage law does not recognise the gotra or
caste system and thus does not prohibit marriage within the gotra or
in other caste. The Hindu Succession Act, amended in 2005, gives
daughters equal rights in the ancestral property along with sons. It
also gives her the right to seek partition of the dwelling house she
inherits. The previous law gave daughters an equal right only in
self-acquired property of her father and a partial right in ancestral
property. It restricted her right in a dwelling house, in which the
joint family lived. The amendment in 2005 also deleted a section,
which exempted Land Reforms Act, Land Ceiling Act and laws relating to
devolution of tenancies in agricultural land, from the Hindu
Succession Act. These state laws favoured male lineal descendants over
wives and daughters.

Down To Earth spoke to a dozen khap panchayat members in Haryana about
the Hindu Succession Act. None was willing to speak on record, but
said the debate on sharing landholdings with married daughters has
gained momentum since the amendment in 2005. The first such meeting
took place in Rohtak in July 2005, which was attended by 21 khap
panchayats. “The law allows daughters to have rights over property of
their parents, in-laws and also retain individual property. Why does
one need to give so many rights to women?” asks Meher Singh Jhakar,
general secretary of Jhakar Khap, which exercises its authority over
36 villages in Jhajjar district in Haryana. “The new generation has
new expectations that confront the traditional ways. If constitution
of the UK can accept conventions as key provisions why can’t the khap
principles be accepted here?”

Obsession with land

Jats, the way we see them now, as big landholders, are the creation of
centuries of fight over land (see ‘Nomads to landlords’). They opposed
the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 over and again and used political
leadership to prevent fragmentation of their land.

In 1967, within months of its formation as a new state, Haryana passed
a resolution, requesting the Centre to amend the Act. Punjab followed
suit. The Centre did not oblige. In 1979, the Haryana Assembly passed
a bill, amending the Act unilaterally, and sent it for the President’s
approval. The President did not give his assent. Ten years later in
1989, renowned farmers’ leader from Haryana, Chaudhary Devi Lal,
proposed an amendment to the Act during his tenure as the deputy prime
minister. The demand was dropped following protests.

Haryana and five other states, including Punjab and Rajasthan, which
have active khaps, denied equal inheritance rights for women in
parental property, especially in agricultural land, until the 2005
amendment to the Succession Act.

Going by media reports, khap panchyats did not issue militant diktats
against women until 2005. This is the time the NCR witnessed a boom in
property rate and became the country’s largest residential market.
Currently, it has more housing units than the combined tally of
Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Hyderabad. But since their
opposition to the succession law did not work out, khap panchayats now
focus on the Hindu Marriage Act to bring in provisions to stop
same-gotra marriage to retain land within the family boundary.

Nomads to landlords

Nomads to landlords Once a nomadic pastoral community, Jats settled in
Jhajjar, Rohtak, Jind, Panipat, Gurgaon and Sonipat districts of
Haryana in the early 13th century. Then the land was barren. The
Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi dynasties that ruled Delhi
during the period introduced rahat, or Persian wheel system of
irrigation, in the area.

This fuelled green revolution and transformed Jat pastoralists into
agricultural peasants. Agriculture in the region became more lucrative
after Muhammand Bin Tughlaq constructed the Western Yamuna Canal. With
this newfound prosperity, Jats organised themselves into a powerful
clan, seeding the khap panchayat concept.

Soon they became the rulers’ revenue collectors and colonised more
land. It is said that Akbar elevated some khap members to the status
of ministers to integrate the Jat community into his empire